This week the Haifa District Court rejected the Corrie family’s appeal to the state of Israel for its responsibility in the death of their daughter, Rachel. Rachel was killed in 2003 by an Israeli army bulldozer in the Rafah area of the Gaza Strip. International and local media have covered the ruling extensively; their focus has brought back to the surface issues of human rights violations in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
From a human rights perspective, this verdict highlights three major issues. These are not restricted to the specific case of Rachel Corrie, but also display the low status that international law and principles of human rights have in the Israeli political and legal institutions.
The first issue is the attempt to undermine the group Rachel belonged to. Judge Oded Gershon opened his verdict with an attack on the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), of which Rachel Corrie was a member. Members of the ISM travel to the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, where they attempt to prevent human rights violations using their physical presence. The ISM ethos dictates that a civilian and nonviolent presence will, first of all, provide an eyewitness, and second, that the physical presence of their members will prevent the violation from occurring in the first place.
Yet the verdict states: “The ISM provided physical, logistical and moral support to the Palestinians, including the terrorists and their families.” It adds: “This movement manipulates human rights and moral standards to cover their violent actions.” By condemning the ISM in this manner, the Israeli legal system joins the wider political effort to demonize this international, peaceful presence. This effort is part of broader campaign which validates and legitimizes the attacks on, and even the killings of activists and journalists (such as Tom Hurndall and James Miller) who are seen by this verdict as “members of a terrorist organization” or “supporting terrorists.”
Israeli courts undermine international law
The second issue was major holes in the verdict. Firstly, it makes absolutely no reference to international law, human rights conventions, or universal values. This absence is not an accident, neither is it a result of Gershon’s personal views. Rather, it is a manifestation of the political, military and legal culture that dominates all Israeli institutions. The prevailing majority belief is that international law does not apply to Israel and its activities in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. The verdict shows that universal values do not constitute a credible reference as far as the Israeli legal system is concerned.
Also absent in the verdict is any sympathy towards the Corrie family, who had dutifully attended every hearing of the case and deserved human and moral consideration for the loss of their daughter. The verdict essentially says to the family bluntly that their daughter was a part of an organization that “supports terrorists” and that by entering a “military area” she took full responsibility for her own death.
The third issue brought up by the verdict is a re-emphasis of a decades-old attitude that has prevailed in the Israeli courts. The courts enforce no accountability on the army and they maintain impunity for Israel’s security and military infrastructure. The army operates without fear of consequence for their crimes and human rights violations. The verdict not only provides legal legitimization for the actions under review, but also a sense of understanding for the conspicuous efforts undertaken to destroy evidence relating to the case.
Evidence that “simply do[es] not exist anymore”
There were audio cassettes recorded during the autopsy, but Judge Gershon accepted the state explanation which claimed that “The tapes simply do not exist anymore because of financial problems at the Institute of Forensic Medicine.” The fact that evidence from this important trial could be lost to simple malpractice calls into question the priorities of the institute. All tapes that contain critical information for ongoing legal proceedings should be exempt from the apparently strict recycling policies.
But the verdict has failed to accomplish the goals of its underlying motive — the attempt to criminalize the ISM failed to prevent expressions of international solidarity. In fact, solidarity grew despite the killing. Also, in failing to perform its sole function of providing justice, the Israeli legal system has created the necessity for appeals to international forums where there is no statute of limitation on war crimes.
To the Corrie family we say: your nine-year struggle to follow the case has been an inspiration to the Palestinians and people around the world striving for justice and defending human rights. The efforts to silence your voices and deny you justice will only galvanize your supporters, inspiring greater efforts to the cause your daughter stood and died for.
Mohammad Zeidan is the General Director of the Arab Association for Human Rights.